When: December 14th
Where: Thompson-Boling Arena; Knoxville, Tennessee
When the news was announced that Brad Stevens would be leaving Butler to take a prestigious post as the head coach of the Boston Celtics, it could be said that the Bulldogs would have a difficult time replicating the success they had seen in recent years under his command. Stevens was, after all, a wunderkind, who was seen as a future Coach K--a coach who would amass enough wins and titles to be one of the greatest.
In their first season without Stevens, the Bulldogs struggled, to say the least. They finished at 14-17, which was only their second losing season in the past 21 years. It goes without saying that this was not a feeling that Butler fans--or players, for that matter--were used to experiencing.
Despite that disappointing season, Butler stepped up their recruiting game, managing to snag a four star forward from Kentucky named Kelan Martin, as well as bringing in two excellent transfers: Austin Etherington, a small forward from Indiana, and Tyler Lewis, a point guard with a lot of potential, from North Carolina State. One can also factor in how Kellen Dunham, Butler's top scorer last season, as a sophomore will be returning with what will be even more ability to tear apart Big East defenses. Butler may not have functioned well last season, but they're certainly putting the pieces in place for a brighter future.
Tennessee, however, experienced a season that finished in quite the surprising way. In Cuonzo Martin's third season with the program, the Volunteers managed to finish the regular season with a 21-12 record, advancing to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. They ultimately received an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, where they defeated teams such as Iowa, UMass, and Mercer in order to advance to the Sweet 16, the Vols' first appearance there since the Bruce Pearl era ended.
Since that time, Cuonzo Martin left Tennessee to fill the California head coaching spot that was left vacant after the retirement of Mike Montgomery. The Volunteers have also lost a total of nine players from last season, including some top players such as Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes, Jeronne Maymon, and Antonio Barton. All four of the aforementioned players were in the top five in scoring for Tennessee last season. Even with a recruiting class that includes the athletic four-star guard Detrick Mostella, it will be difficult to immediately replicate the success of last season. That's not to say that another successful season isn't out of reach for Tennessee. If they aim to perform as well as last season, someone such as the senior guard Josh Richardson will have to take control of the team, and receive assistance from some underclassmen who are prepared to do their part.
Neither of the teams going into this game were offensive powerhouses last year, but Tennessee was just better put-together, largely due to the factor that a large core of their starting lineup was rooted in senior leadership. Had this game taken place last season, I would have given the edge to Tennessee without a second thought. It's too early to make a prediction for this year's match-up, but it seems that this game is going to be pretty even skill-wise. For Butler, this game will serve as an excellent test to see how they fare in a hostile road environment, in an arena that is consistently full of fans who are quite raucous.